In looking for books about bogs, I came across Bog Child by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd. Her exceptional young adult novel is also about family, religion, sacrifice, and Ireland’s Troubles in 1981. In other words, it’s far more complex than I expected.
If you don’t know anything about bog bodies, Dowd’s novel is a great place to start. In it, eighteen-year-old Fergus and his Uncle Tally find a female body buried in the bog while they’re out shoveling peat. In case you aren’t aware, peat is commonly used for fuel. Thinking that they have discovered a murder victim, they call the police. Turns out, they should’ve called an archeologist. The body has not been in the bog for weeks or months but for years. In case you also aren’t aware, bogs preserve bodies kind of like mummies in Egyptian tombs. All kinds of other information is learned when the archeologists arrive. For example, the woman is wearing a gold bangle, which she would have made a good sacrifice. Then again, there’s also a rope around her neck, suggesting she might have been hung as a criminal before being thrown into the bog. That’s the thing about bog bodies: scientists can identify their gender, age, and season of death, but normally not the reason they are in the bog. What makes Bog Child such an engaging and informative read is that Fergus starts having dreams about the buried woman, whom he names Mel, and the nature of her death. These dreams are intertwined with his muddled feelings about his brother, who is on a hunger strike.
You see, besides learning about bog bodies, I also received many chapters-worth of education about a period known as Ireland’s Troubles. While being aware of Ireland’s internal strife, Ireland’s occurred during my high school years and so escaped my notice. A Google search revealed that in 1981, Irish political prisoners went on a hunger strike during the time Margaret Thatcher was in power in Great Britain. Important to this movement was Bobby Sands, who died for the cause. In Bog Child, there are numerous references to soldiers, border checkpoints, bomb-makers, Semtrax, courier recruitment, hunger strikes, and violence. On a more personal level, Fergus (and his family) struggles to make sense of his brother’s decision to join other protesting prisoners in a hunger strike. At one point, Uncle Tally expresses the hope for all of them that, “One day the only border will be the sea and the only thing guarding it the dunes and the only people living in it Republicans.” Yet Bog Child isn’t a pro-war book. One of the most-touching friendships is between Fergus and an enemy soldier Owain, whom Fergus discovers is just another regular guy like him.
Intriguing as I found all of the above, the backdrop of Ireland meant that I also found Bog Child at times a little difficult to understand. Besides finding myself lacking in knowledge about Ireland’s political wars, I felt like a student in having to guess at the meaning of several words. For example, did you know that “gorse” is a spiny and prickly shrub that thrives in dry acidic soils? Or that “lough” is pronounced “lock” and means “lake”? Now while words like those didn’t significantly hinder my understanding of the story, other words such as “JCB” and “Provo” proved more important to know. As best as I could determine from a Google search, “JCB” refers to agricultural machinery while “Provo” refers to a member of the Irish Republican Army who used guerilla warfare in an effort to drive British forces from Northern Ireland.
Being set in Ireland, it might not come as a surprise to anyone that Fergus and his family are Catholic. However, I must caution that Fergus is a not a believer. He refers to church as a place that one must attend, no matter what their feelings about God. As to those feelings, he stopped believing in God about the same time he stopped believing in Santa Claus. His soldier friend Owain is Protestant instead, but has also fallen in the faith.
Yet none of the negatives should deter you from reading Bog Child. It is full of happiness and sadness, joys and tragedies, and is one of the most original stories about growing-up that I’ve read.
My rating?Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
Américas Award for Children’s & Young Adult Literature
CLASP founded the Américas Award in 1993 to encourage and commend authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.
The Carnegie Medal is awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It was established by in 1936, in memory of the great Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie.
The Christy Awards are awarded each year to recognize novels of excellence written from a Christian worldview.
Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples. It is given to African American authors and illustrator.
children and young adult blogger literacy awards
Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award
The Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award was initiated in 2000 to recognize authors, illustrators, and publishers of high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with deve
Hans Christian Anderson Award
The Hans Christian Andersen Awards is given to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. The award is the highest international recognition an author can receive.
Kate Greenaway Medal
The Kate Greenaway Medal was established in 1955, for distinguished illustration in a book for children. It is named after the popular nineteenth century artist known for her fine children’s illustrations and designs.
Middle East Book Award
The Middle East Book Award recognizes quality books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to an understanding of the Middle East and its component societies and cultures.
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award
Honors fantasy books for younger readers, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia
Newbery Medal Award
The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
Pura Belpré Award
The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. It is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino experience.
Red House Book Award
The Red House Children’s Book Award is a series of literary prizes for works of children’s literature published during the previous year in England.
Sydney Taylor Award
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.